Listen to the debate in Washington and at the Statehouse, and you are invited to think the level of taxation alone drives the performance of the economy. Ample research and evidence show that is not the case. More telling, in a word, is organization. The structure of an economy matters, how well the components interact — say, to prepare workers, drive innovation and take full advantage of local business strengths.
That is what President Obama addressed in his State of the Union speech last week when he called for Congress to help create a network of 15 “manufacturing hubs.” As the president noted, the first already exists — in Youngstown, a consortium of companies, universities, community colleges and other organizations around the emerging concept of additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, the making of products through layering materials.
This hub draws on the resources of the “Tech Belt,” covering parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The effort includes the University of Akron. The project prevailed in a competition, the federal government putting up $30 million, the participants adding $40 million.
The thinking is practical and far-sighted. One crucial part of innovation is research, where many companies fall short. Build relationships with research universities, and that knowledge gap can be bridged. More, the collaboration lays a foundation for moving ideas into actual products for the marketplace, fueling growth and creating new jobs.
A hub can play a similar catalytic role in the development of the work force, in attracting capital and talent, in spurring a cluster of activity to support new ideas and technologies, exploiting the productive scale of a region. All of this helps the country with its competitive edge.
As Mark Muro of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution stresses, this isn’t mere theory on paper. Those in the business trenches emphasize the value of such organizing. No developed country advances manufacturing as well as Germany does. Its success has been aided by applying the principle of hubs.
To his credit, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown long has been pressing for such an initiative, a National Network of Manufacturing Innovation. The Ohio Democrat rightly highlights the value of a strong manufacturing sector, even if it does not employ the numbers of workers it once did. Among other things, manufacturing leads in innovation, generates higher-paying jobs and fuels exports.
Brown understands the need to take one hub at a time, showing “proof of concept.” Yet to achieve the necessary impact, one or two hubs will not be sufficient. The senator and the president are near the mark in seeking more than a dozen.
In Ohio, it is helpful that state lawmakers have been proceeding along this line. The House task force on 21st century manufacturing, led by state Rep. Kirk Schuring, conducted hearings across the state and recently reported recommendations, many meshing with the hub concept. Yet the steep challenge resides in Washington. Brown is preparing legislation. Surely, there is room for Republicans and Democrats to join in strengthening manufacturing, encouraging the organization necessary to thrive in the marketplace.